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Knoch junior happy he plunged into sport

| Monday, Jan. 5, 2004

Three years ago when Joseph Wagner decided to go out for the swim team, it was a surprise to all involved. Wagner didn't come from a swimming background, nor did he show interest in the sport.

Today, the Knoch High School junior is a WPIAL Class AA qualifier in the 100-yard butterfly, and is nearing cuts in the 50 freestyle.

“We can thank James Rankin for all of this,” Wagner's mother, Judy, said.

Rankin, a senior for the Knights at the time, recruited Wagner to join the swim team. The boys squad had only a few swimmers, and coach Tim O'Toole said he wanted “anyone” to join the team. Rankin convinced Wagner to give the sport a chance, not knowing the new recruit eventually would be a star.

“(Swimming) was something new, so I decided to try it,” Wagner said. “I had done other sports, but never found anything that hooked me.”

Swimming did it.

Despite not having knowledge of the swimming strokes, Wagner persevered.

“He couldn't swim a length of the pool,” O'Toole recalled. “I'll never forget the first time he swam the 50 trial; he did a :45.”

For an idea on how far Wagner has come: Jan. 10 he swam the 50 in 32.47; this season he is swimming the event in 25 seconds and change.

“He's the hardest-working kid I've ever coached,” O'Toole said. “He will do whatever is asked of him.”

Even if it's something he hasn't done before.

Last season, for example, O'Toole needed Wagner to swim the 100 butterfly against Valley. Knoch just needed Wagner to finish the event to get the win.

“He got DQ'd for an illegal kick,” O'Toole said.

Thursday, Wagner takes a career-best, WPIAL time 1:02.8 back to Valley — another testament to Wagner's unyielding determination.

O'Toole admits that he was surprised Wagner was able to excel so quickly.

“I honestly didn't see the athleticism,” O'Toole said. “I credit it to an unbelievable work ethic.”

Wagner isn't so surprised. He's just a kid trying to accomplish what he has set out to do.

“I'll do whatever it takes,” Wagner said. “If it requires extra work, I'll do it.”

O'Toole can testify to that. He said Wagner often stays after practice to work on stroke technique and starts and turns — work that is imperative to someone trying to qualify in an event (50 freestyle) where there is no time for mistakes.

“Tim's been a great help,” Wagner said. “He's really taught me everything I know.”

Wagner's not kidding.

From the first day Wagner jumped into the pool as a swimming novice, O'Toole has worked to make Wagner the competitive athlete he is today.

Wagner's mother agrees.

“(O'Toole) does a wonderful job,” she said. “(Joseph) never would have come as far as he has if it wasn't for Tim.”

Wagner has done a good job himself getting to where he is. Where his future takes him is unknown, but Wagner said he would like to continue swimming in college.

With the strides he has made over the past three years, Wagner won't surprise anyone if he is successful.

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